Chronicle of a movement

Chronicle of a movement


If women hold up ‘half the sky’, their voices should equally matter in the social history of a country. But, is that voice audible in our land? A new book, ‘Our Pictures, Our Words’, tracing the women’s movement in India through posters and narratives is a novel attempt to bring that voice to the fore, writes Ranjitha Biswas

DIRECT HIT One of the posters in the collection. PICTURE COURTESY TWF.Sometimes pictures can tell a story much better than the written word. This might sound like a cliché but a recently published book, ‘Our Pictures, Our Words’ (Zubaan) vindicates it decisively. The title, qualified as ‘A visual journey through the women’s movement’ in India portrays the women’s movement in the country through the medium of posters. The posters have been brought out by different organisations working in the area through the past three and half decades of activism on issues concerning women and gender.

Even considering the huge number of  publications on this particular subject, the book stands out as an interesting treatment of the subject. Zubaan (formerly Kali for Women) being at the helm of the feminist movement from the beginning, is well placed for undertaking such a project.

Posters were originally used, with the advent of printing, to make public announcements. The modern type of poster we are familiar with, evolved in the 19th century when lithography brought down the cost of printing dramatically. French artist Toulouse-Lautrec was at the forefront of poster-art and many followed his style and the advertising poster soon became a part of the art-world. From advertising to the poster of protest and creation of awareness was but a short step.

Indeed, poster is an evocative media for focusing on an issue. Today poster presentation is an integral part of national and international conferences on subjects like HIV/AIDS, girl child, trafficking, etc. However, one is often left wondering, what happens to those beautifully laid out, thoughtfully conceived, posters after the meet is over? Do they go to the trash bin? Are they put up on the office walls which only a few people can see? Isn’t it a better idea to preserve them for posterity? In 2005, Zubaan embarked on “an exciting project called ‘Poster Women’… to map a visual history of the women’s movement in India.”  Later, out of the collection, 220 were chosen and exhibited at 12 metros across the country.

The poster-collection concept was stoked by an observation that though the women’s movement kicking off in the country from the 1970s had colourful, eye-catching posters as crucial tools for sensitisation on the issues that affect the contemporary gender scenario, there was not much on record to chronicle their contribution. “Tragically, however, much of the history of activism and of organising, of the euphoria of the early days of street-level protest, has been lost because of  the ephemeral nature of the poster,”  the publishers say. One of the main reasons is because of the poster’s use as something “of the moment” and perhaps also, it is not treated as a necessary item for a “formal” archive.

When the project took off, the response at first tripped and progressed slowly over rough patches but after concerted efforts the posters started arriving, even from remote corners — and they are still doing so, accordingly to Zubaan.

What has lifted the project from mere exhibitions, again a ‘temporary’ affair, is taking it further into the realm of permanence through the book. Veteran journalists Laxmi Murthy and Rajashri Dasgupta have put in their experience and insight into the women’s movement to articulate the thoughts behind the posters. Separate chapters, each taking up an issue have focused on different areas. For example, under “Body Politics” are subjects like rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment (poster: “Is Your Flirting Hurting?”), health, desire (introducing it as “Who controls women’s bodies? Men? The community? Society? …Not women, certainly. Not yet”). The chapter on ‘Community Politics’ takes up subjects like religion and personal laws, honour crimes, religious extremism, etc

It’s interesting to see how the language of poster says so much within such little space. Kamla Bhasin’s Dhokra-like women figures in white on an earthy background simply says, “One + One = Eleven” exemplifying the power of women’s solidarity. The control over the woman’s body in the chapter ‘Body Politics’ tries to say how, despite getting the vote gender disparities has widened, through the woman with shackled feet in a poster done by Sakshi, Haryana.  Many of the posters are in the regional language and show how the women in the hinterland react to issues that affect them — irrespective of whether they are from rural or from urban areas.

Saying much

There are delightful posters too with a message on ‘Rights’ that lift the spirit. Like the one, “The Right to Leisure” done by Asmita, Hyderabad, where a woman in a white sari on a pink background is shown putting her feet up on a stool, a cup of tea by her side and reading a book — something she deserves, by right, after all the running around she does as a multitasking woman.   

Through the obstacles, many personal and political challenges, the women’s movement has been able to boost changes that have been beneficial to the Indian woman. Progressive amendments to the rape law, Domestic Violence Act, etc. are some examples. A poster of a woman stepping out through a decorated door into the wide open world with the line “A Step towards Progress” done by Women’s Studies Research Centre, Maharaja Siyajirao University, Baroda, has ‘hope’ as a message.

Indeed, as the book’s blurb says, the women’s movement in India has been, “Vibrant, dynamic, spirited, and forceful.” It needs to look at the social changes — and need for change, through a woman’s eye to realise that. This pictorial journey is a reminder of how the women’s movement in the country has evolved towards empowerment through the last few decades, though there are miles to go, yet.

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